The Hitachi DZMV780A is one of the littlest DVD camcorders we've seen. Slightly smaller than Hitachi's midrange DZGX20A, the DZMV780A is extremely compact, weighing just one pound, two ounces. It has a solid, sturdy feel, though its gray-and-silver plastic case looks very ordinary.
The camera rests comfortably in your right hand, providing easy access to the zoom rocker and the power/mode switch. Buttons above and behind the LCD screen offer easy access to the most common functions without making you dive into the menus. The primary controls work well, but the flush touch-sensitive buttons for changing exposure and manual focus can be difficult to use in the field.
As with the other Hitachi models of its generation, the DZMV780A does away with the caddy required by earlier models of Hitachi DVD camcorders. Just snap the 3-inch disc on the spindle to record, then pop it out and place it directly in your DVD player. The DVD hatch sits on the right side of the camera, so a tripod won't interfere with disc swapping.
We found the Hitachi DZMV780A's menus easy to navigate using the left-mounted directional pad, which doubles as a playback control. A Quick Menu button offers an abbreviated list of functions, but the regular menus are relatively sparse, leaving the Quick Menu so basic that it's rarely useful.
The Hitachi DZMV780A's specifications are similar to those of a low-end MiniDV camcorder. It features a 1.1-megapixel CCD, with 690,000 pixels used for video. Among the configurable settings are automatic and manual white balance and exposure as well as five programmed autoexposure modes. The camera features an accessory shoe that can accommodate an external flash; you can also buy wide and telephoto lens adapters.
The MV780A supports two formats of 3-inch DVD discs: write-once DVD-R and rewritable DVD-RAM. You can also use the bundled DVD-MovieAlbumSE software--a simple video editor--to transfer footage and convert it to VOB, the standard format for DVDs. Though the fastest method of transfer is to simply drop your disc into a PC's DVD drive, the DZMV780A also provides a USB 2.0 connection for transferring still images and video. The USB connection mounts the drive as a volume on your system, allowing you to drag and drop files using Windows Explorer. You won't find a FireWire port, nor software or drivers for the Mac.
The camera records using MPEG-2 compression and can hold 18 to 60 minutes per side, depending upon the recording quality selected. It handles both 4:3 and 16:9 wide-screen formats. The DZMV780A stores video in DVD-VR format, which many PC video-editing programs now support--though not as many as support DV.
As for stills, the MV780A records 1,280x960-pixel still images to either DVD-RAM or SD/MultiMediaCard (MMC) media. Unlike the higher-end DZGX20A, the DZMV780A lacks a flash, so you'll probably reserve still shooting for outdoors. The camera offers S-Video and composite inputs and outputs, which are useful for converting your old analog videos to DVD format. You can set the LCD to act as a basic video light when shooting in Low Light mode; the image blanks and displays pure white to light your subject. This is helpful only when shooting very close to the subject.
The Hitachi DZMV780A performs much better than Hitachi's previous generation of camcorders. It starts up very quickly and is ready to shoot just a couple of seconds after you flip the power switch.
Its other features also perform well. The zoom is smooth and easy to control, whether you're zooming in fast or at a leisurely pace. Autofocus is responsive and quick, as is the camera's ability to adjust to changing lighting conditions. Image stabilization was effective throughout the first 75 percent or so of the zoom range. At 10X zoom, it dampens but doesn't eliminate hand shakes. Sound quality is very good, and the microphone, though sensitive, doesn't pick up any drive-motor noises.
Precise manual focus can be difficult to achieve. Though the 2.5-inch LCD is sharp and viewable under a variety of lighting conditions, it's too small for the user to easily discern enough detail for precise manual focusing. The color viewfinder offers even less detail, so it's not much help here.
Battery life is so disappointing that you may want to budget for the optional extended battery. Though the battery is rated at up to 60 minutes at the best recording quality, you can figure on a bit less than half of that with typical start/stop recording and occasional replay of the scenes you've shot. We got low-battery warnings after only 15 minutes of usage, and in our tests, the battery was discharged in less than 25 minutes.
During our test shooting, a DVD-R disc developed a write error. The camera offered to attempt to repair the disc, but the repair failed. After that, the camera would not display any of the 10 minutes or so of footage we'd already shot, nor could we access it on a computer. Had a similar problem occurred with a MiniDV tape, we could have forwarded past the bad spot. This might be something to consider when shooting critical events.
The Hitachi DZMV780A's video quality is decent but noticeably less sharp than that of the higher-end DZGX20A. We saw MPEG-2 compression artifacts even when shooting at the best available quality, and a shimmering effect was noticeable around straight edges. In bright light, color hues were accurate, though slightly oversaturated at times. In dim lighting conditions, video started to take on a grainy appearance. Though the automatic white balance worked well outdoors, in dim room lighting, footage took on a reddish cast until we manually set the white balance.
In extremely dim conditions, you can use the Low Light program autoexposure mode to brighten the scene somewhat, but this lowers the frame rate, making for blurry, jerky motion from pans and moving objects. The gimmicky option to turn the LCD screen into a light does little to help here.
The DZMV780A's still-image quality is abysmal. Indoor shots were laced with random color noise throughout, even under normal room lighting. Outdoor shots lacked the color noise but were still extremely grainy and lacking in detail. We've seen camera phones that can handily beat the DZMV780A's still quality. It isn't a good substitute for a still camera, even in a pinch.